[ places - february 08 ]
Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, is a surreal city by Asian standards. Relocated from Karachi in the 1950s to discourage invasion by India, the designers imposed a grid pattern on this corner of the Potohar plateau, dividing the new city into sectors of suburban inspiration, optimistically labelled F to H, and 6 to 11, as if this tidiness would one day extend to both alphabetical termini. Quadrants 1-4 flank the sectors' sole dynamic feature: oblong malls of alternating dross and glitter, depending on a sector's wealth and taste.
The one thing the designers missed was a railway station. The colonial network, started in the 1860s to tether the restless extremities to the central Raj, followed Alexander's line of march from the Hindu Kush to the coast, only in reverse. From Karachi on the Arabian Sea, the tracks clatter along both sides of the River Indus until Sukkur where the right-bank route branches northwest to the orchards of Quetta, while the east-bank line sneaks through Lahore to the military cantonment at Rawalpindi, the capital's twin city and its indisputable overlord. Beyond lie Peshawar and the Khyber Pass, gateway to Afghanistan.
Rawalpindi bristles with moustaches, messes, gun oil - and whiffs of conspiracy. Seven types of traffic expel a soot of diesel into the mid-winter mist through which the bulked-out silhouettes of suicide bombers stride toward indefensible targets. Let the civilians enjoy their corrupt capital with its emblems of pretend statehood, both seem to say, 'Pindi has the muck and the top brass. It also has the railway - adding a taxi fare of 1,000 rupees, or £8.00, to the cost of any journey by rail from Islamabad.
With air tickets to Karachi in the region of £75 one-way, going by train is no mere whim for the few tourists drawn to this seaside megalopolis - which commands a level of allegiance from its 14 million residents comparable to Manhattan in its 'Gangs of New York' period. Booking a railway seat, however, is gratifyingly free from administrative complexity, though it requires a taxi ride (Islamabad has no rapid transit system) to one of the two lacklustre outlets that serve Pakistan Railway (PR) in the capital.
The most convenient was Prestige in Melody Market, sector G-6, near the main post office (tel: 051-9207474), where four members of staff were busy changing a light bulb. A fifth, a lady, manned the only computer terminal, interjecting travel advice with bawdy comments to the lighting crew.
More than half a dozen services answered my requirement for a first-class sleeper to Karachi, including the Buraq, Nishtar, Pakistan, Sir Syed and Tezgam Expresses, and the more exotic Khyber Mail. I took the Jinnah Express, named after the country's founder, because times of departure and arrival (14.30 and 12.45, respectively) seemed to combine the most speed and daylight to ensure maximum window-gazing over a minimum amount of time (this would later prove to be not entirely true).
A ticket for an air-conditioned, business-class seat costs 2,250 rupees (£17.85), and buys a numbered bunk in a specified compartment. PR's website, http://www.pakrail.com/, offers an e-ticketing service in addition to route services and timetables, though the link was down at the time of writing and experience suggests that pick-up of the e-ticket might pose an additional complication.
The forecourt of Rawalpindi station is free of vehicles due to the security threat - one of a series of suicide bombers had killed 11 at a police checkpoint in the city only a few weeks earlier. And as befits a cantonment under military dictatorship, the platforms are spick and span, pre-departure procedures smooth and trains leave on time.
Guards are scrupulous to ensure the right ticket-holder matches the right seat but when sleep beckons, the allocation of berths, tiered six to a compartment in business class, is the outcome of negotiation more than reservation. In practice, the elderly, women and children get the lower bunks (men and women, surprisingly, share sleeping compartments in this Islamic state), while gents shimmy up foot-holds to the top levels, closest to the A/C, and which also have reading lamps. PR provides each passenger with a pillow and blanket, but it's a good idea to bring your own pashmina or stole for those midnight rambles.
Comfort levels are not high: business class approximates to around second in a western rail system; there are no power-points for your laptop, and no flat surface on which to place one. What you get instead is a powerful sense of solidarity over the estimated 22-hour length of the journey (this would later prove to be not entirely true). From the six-person cell of the individual compartment to the six compartments of the single carriage, and the three carriages and restaurant car that make up business section, trust was never an issue after the initial ice was broken. And the toilets (both squat and sit) were hygienic throughout, although neat mounds of used nappies testify to other disposability challenges.
My sleeping companions were a gold dealer and his wife returning from holiday in Islamabad, and a man with a kebab restaurant in Milan, who claimed to have eased the entry of 700 members of his 'family' into Italy in the past 17 years. We chatted and shared pistachios; prayed while others read; answered queries in smoking corridors; played ludo; and ambled to the comfortable restaurant car for Bollywood videos and trays of curry and rice. PR staff provide regular supplies of tea in the corridors while vendors offer snacks and sodas, all at reasonable rates. Despite these supplies, it's advisable to bring water and a few little treats.
Jinnah Express departs Rawalpindi at 14.30 sharp and arrives in Lahore, theoretically, four hours later. In the intervening hours, a landscape that begins with urban pustulation changes before one's gaze into rural suburbia, eliding into a landscape of sandstone formations and stands of tall grass, some of which are on fire. When we pull into Lahore at 19.30, the service has already lost an hour.
The second stop is at Multan, some time after midnight, and then we racketed on without break until Rohri Junction, across the Indus from Sukkur. From there to Karachi, the line follows Alexander's troops through the floodplain of the Indus, too distant to glimpse through the date palms, but tangled in its spell by the canals dug to share its waters, and the herons and ibis that fish there.
The Indus is sacred, like the ibis, but travellers on the Jinnah Express see little of it. The land is squared off - like Islamabad, in its way - into rice-growing and date-palm estates, and the villages that farm them. Sindh, the region most watered by the Indus, also has the most depleted identity of Pakistan's five provinces, including a ban on the teaching in school of its distinctive language and literature.
Through this etiolated landscape, under the thunder of a November sun, one enters Karachi after a journey of 25 hours. Train travellers will experience more of Pakistan's real character than air passengers, but this does not always translate into a memorable epiphany. There was nothing in 25 hours that could not have been more comfortably compressed into four, while the overland journey along the Indus would have been better made by water. Unfortunately, this method of travel does not exist as yet.
Finally, a word of warning about accommodation. Despite its hundreds of long-stay diplomatic and aid visitors, Islamabad has problems in this area too but websites at least cater to those on a budget (http://www.islamabad-hotels.com.pk/accommodation). This is not true for Karachi, a city that is far from realising its tourist potential (imagine: a port city on the Arabian Sea with no waterfront district, and no tradition of serving seafood!).
Google any combination of the words 'Karachi', 'guesthouse', 'budget hotel' and 'accommodation', and the same pricey three (Marriot, Sheraton and Pearl Continental) are likely to emerge. And, take it from me, taxi drivers haven't got a clue either. As night fell over a city with a recent history of killing or kidnapping its foreign visitors (and providing sanctuary to the perpetrators), I opted out of desperation for Hotel Sarawan (http://www.hotelsarawan.com/) in bustling Saddar Market, which at least put me within walking distance of the extraordinary bargains available there for shirts and leather goods. Unfortunately, reception first bargained over the price and then demanded three nights' 'deposit' before I'd even seen the room.
Somebody could make a bit of money figuring out an easier way of putting visitors in contact with the Karachi's hotel and guesthouse scene. And it might just help upgrade the quality of the offer and the welcome they receive.